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Korean missile politics overshadow Seoul nuclear terrorism summit

More than 50 world leaders, including President Obama, are set to arrive in Seoul to discuss prevention of nuclear terrorism, but Pyongyang's plans for a new missile test have shifted the discussion.

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The bottom line among analysts is that North Korea has no intention of giving up its nuclear program.

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“The best we can do is to get them to freeze the program,” says Peter Beck, director of the Asia Foundation here. “Until we accept that North Korea is not going to denuclearize, all we can do is contain North Korea.”

Siegfried Hecker, the physicist who visited the North Korean nuclear complex in 2010 and saw firsthand how far North Korea has gone in its highly enriched uranium program, describes himself as “pessimistic in the short run but optimistic in the long run.”

“We should give them a sense of security,” says Mr. Hecker, director emeritus of the Los Alamos National Laboratory. “In the longer term, I view North Korea as an island of instability in an area of stability” dominated by China and Japan as well as South Korea.

Although North Korea possesses enough material for six to eight nuclear warheads, says Hecker, the North is frustrated by its inability actually to deliver a warhead to a target. “They have the bomb but not much of a delivery system,” he says. “That’s why these tests are so important.”

Hecker places urgency on the need to persuade China to exercise pressure on North Korea to cease and desist. “China will say, ‘We want peace and stability,” he says, “but will they understand these provocations are threatening peace and stability?”

Kim Jong-un asserts his power

One theory is that the missile launch, timed for the centennial celebrations of the birth of North Korea’s founding leader Kim Il-sung on April 15, is a show to buttress the power of his grandson, Kim Jong-un, who took over after the death of Kim Jong-il in December.

In an effort by Kim Jong-un to assert himself on the home front, according to reports here today, North Korea has mounted a purge of senior officials for showing signs of disloyalty during the mourning period after the funeral for his father.

An official with South Korea’s unification ministry says such reports are “plausible.” South Korea’s biggest-selling newspaper, Chosun Ilbo, reported “a bloody purge” that saw “barbaric methods including mortar rounds used to execute high-ranking military officials.”

North Korea, says the unification ministry official, “made it very clear that those who violated the mourning would be punished,”

Some experts question, however, whether Kim Jong-un would have personally issued the orders for executing people or whether he rubber-stamped suggestions from lower ranking officials.

“I doubt whether Kim Jong-un directed everything completely,” says Kim Tae-woo, president of the Korea Institute of National Unification. “Kim Jong-un must be very careful” as he establishes control. “He wants to purge those generals standing in his way.”

The purge of officials paralleled increasingly vitriolic rhetorical blasts leveled against South Korea while Kim Jong-un visits military units closest to South Korean forces. He has been ordering soldiers to fire back “without hesitation” in order to “wipe out” South Korea’s President Lee Myung-bak, routinely described as a “traitor.”

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